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Charles Laughton (1899-1962)


  1. WC Fields, Alice In Wonderland, 1932.       For who else but… Humpty Dumpty!
  2. Frank Morgan, The Affairs of Cellini, 1933.      When trying to obtain Laughton for Alessandro, Duke of Florence, head Fox Darryl F Zanuck was thwarted at every turn by a strictly no-loan-deal Paramount. DFZ also lost MGM’s Robert Montgomery that year for another Constance Bennett vehicle, Moulin Rouge.
  3. Warren William, Cleopatra, 1934.     Opposite Claudette Colbert in Theda Bara's old silent role, director Cecil B DeMille wanted "a great St Bernard dog of a Caesar, with a chest an army could camp on." (AP reporter Hubbard Keavy suggested: King Kong). Laughton, hilarious as Nero to CB's horror in Sign of the Cross, 1932, was more Pekinese than St Bernard. "Feeble," said CB, signing William, an ex-reporter who worked in Pearl White serials and later played B-movie heroes The Lone Wolf, Philo Vance, Perry Mason.

  4. WC Fields, David Copperfield, 1934.  
    Producer David Selznick wanted Oliver Hardy but director George Cukor ran elaborate Laughton tests. Shaving his head, he “looked Micawber to the life.”   And was sacked after two days! Why? Rashômon time… (a)  His wife, Elsa Lanchester (playing Clickett)  said   Charlie had  lost all confidence. He saw Micawber as a  ham actor who was always “on”  and “he could not play an actor acting.  The more he tried, the worse he was.”     (b)  Laughton, himself, asked to quit, and to “turn over his role to another” because he felt he could not do the part justice.  Editor Hal Kern said: “Laughton looked as if  he  was going to molest the child.”    (c)  A David O Selznick memo revealed it was due to costs incurred by  Laughton’s delay on his previous Paramount picture due to his illness.   (d)  Plus MGM had “certain difficulties” with him.    (e) . Cukor said Laughton had “a terrific prejudice concerning Jews and needed strange off-stage noises to get him in the mood for acting.”   PS from DOS: “Fields would probably make a better Micawber.” (As Laughton had suggested). 

  5. Leslie Howard, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1934.   Producer Alexander Korda intended his Private Life of Henry VII star should be Sir Percy Blakeney, the “they seek him here, they seek him there” hero rescuing aristocrats from the French Revolution’s guillotine. Laughton did not agree.
  6. Raymond Massey, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1934.  Laughton was next offered  Chauveiin.   Laughton still did not agree.
  7. Otto Kreuger, Vanessa:  Her Love Story, 1934.      When he replaced producer Walter Wanger, David O Selznick wanted Laughton as the i husband Helen Hayes was not allowed to divorce - accordng to Victorian UK law - because he was insane!  
  8. Edmund Gwenn, The Bishop Misbehaves, 1934.  Laughton and Frank Morganwere mulled ovwr for Broadway’s bishop-cum-detectiveBut Gwenn nailed bis audition for his Hollywood debut. UK censors ordered a new title, The Bishop's Misadventures  “because bishops do not misbehave.” Of course not!
  9. Lee Tracy, Sutter's Gold, 1936.      Edward Arnold and Tracy were not apatch on the first choices: Edward G Robinson and (as Laughton described himself), "a face like an elephant's behind."
  10. Akim Tamiroff, The Buccaneer, 1937.  Three years earlier, the legendary CB DeMille asked Laughton to play the world weary old pirate, Dominique Yu But he passed the cutlass to Tamiroff. Anthony Quinn was Beluche, and directed the 1957 re-mnake. He shouldn’t have. CB wanted a first-time director he could boss around. Sure enough, he hated the work of Quinn… his son-in-law.

  11. Robert Morley, Marie Anoinette, 1938.      Moe costume ..   Charlie's refusal led to Morley making his screen debut in Hollywood after being sacked from two UK films (or so he said). Future roles for the very Englishman: George III, Louis XI and the Emperor of China!
  12. Leslie Howard, Pygmalion, 1938.    George Bernard Shaw was a master writer - only one to win a Nobel Prize and an Oscar!    Not so hot on casting. He  wanted tubby Laughton as Professor Henry Higgins and - worse! - Brooklyn’s  Marion Davies as the Cockney flower seller Eliza Dolittle.  The wiser head of producer Gabriel Pascal prevailed: Howard and Wendy Hiller.   GBS, however, was greatly relieved when Howard also stepped out of the next GBS film, Major Barbara.
  13. Robert Donat, Goodbye Mr Chips, 1939.        Literal heavyweights Wallace Beery and Laughton were first considered, but Donat got the role, the lady (Greer Garson), the school and the Oscar. “As soon as I put the moustache on,  I felt the part,” said Donat, “even if I did look like a great Airedale come out of a puddle.” British comic Richard Hearne later copied Donat's elderly look for his comic creation, Mr Pastry.
  14. Charles Coburn, Unexpected Uncle, 1940.  RKO snapped up the Eric Hatch novel with Ginger Rogers in mind as the sacked sales girl opposite John Barrymore or Charles Laughton as her canny, cigar-smoking con-man mentor she calls Uncle. They became Coburn and Anne Shirley. Perfect!  (One of the two scenarists was Delmar Daves, future  director of such Westerns as Broken Arrow, Jubal and 3.10 To Yuma). 
  15. Monty Woolley, The Man Who Came To Dinner, 1941.     Howard Hawks wanted Cary Grant. Orson Welles wanted to direct - and have the lead. Bette Davs wanted John Barrymore as her co-star, but he could no longer remember his lines. Tests of Robert  Benchley and Laird Cregar were respectively deemed “too mild-mannered” and “overblown and extravagant,” by producer Hal Wallis. (Probably why Charles Coburn refused to test at all). Director William Keighley also saw Charles Laughton and Fredric March before asking the Broadway play’s star to reprise the titular  Sheridan Whiteside.
  16. Cedric Hardwicke, The Moon Is Down, 1942.      All the major studios fought for John Steinbeck’s praised/vilified novel/play about the Nazi occupation of Norway. (It was, in fact, superb propaganda for anti-Nazi resistance). Fox chief Darryl F Zanuck won because of how he made Steinbeck’s previous book, The Grapes of Wrath. (The then highest price of $300,000 helped, too). There were eight possibilities for Colonel Lanser: Laughton Fritz Kortner, Paul Lukas, Broadway’s Alfred Lunt, Otto Preminger, George Sanders, Conrad Veidt, Orson Welles.
  17. Francis L Sullivan, The Butler's Dilemma, 1942. Or plain Francis at the time - and for the last time. He was billed as Francis Sullavan in Action for Slander, 1936, and as Francois Sully in The Foreman Went to France. L was for Loftus.
  18. Claude Rains, Phantom of the Opera, 1942.  Oh, he was so right to refuse The Phantom, Because (a) it was to be opposite the famed singing dup of Nelson Eddy and Deanna Durbin and (b) once Durbin pulled out, Eddy made sure his role was beefed up and that of The Phantom whittled down to a cough and a spit. Or as the New York Times  headline put it, the titular Claude Rains “also appears”! 
  19. Akim Tamiroff, For Whom The Bell Tolls, 1942.    A a veritable A List  of  support players was seen…  : Edward Arnold, Wallace Beery, Lee J Cobb, Charles Laughton, Thomas Miytchell  and Edward G Robinson.  Plus two graduates  of Vienna's Academy of Music and  Dramatic Arts: Oscar Homolka and Fritz Kortner - and the Spanish-born opera singer-playwright-novelist-composer Fortunio Bonanova.  
  20. Akim Tamiroff, Dragon Seed, 1943.       Insulting!  Pearl Buck’s book had a point - exposing Japanese atrocities in China.  MGM made it a farce, with the unlikeliest-looking Chinese ever spawned by Hollywood. Taped eyelids for Hepburn, Walter Huston, Aline MacMahon, Akim Tamiroff… Laughton was deemed doable for Wu Lien and then left for The Canterville Ghost. Laird Cregar and Sydney Greemnstreet were inevitably seen as his replacement but failed to pass their Eurasian tests. (As did Edward Arnold, Fay Bainter, Donald Crisp, Greer Garson Van Heflin, Hedy Lamarr, Frank Morgan, Walter Pidgeon Edward G. Robinson for other roles). 

  21. Vincent Price, Moss Rose, 1946.      In a September 19 memo to director Gregory Ratoff, head Fox Darryl Zanuck suggested Henry Daniell as Police Inspector R Clinner. One month later, a new memo nominated Laughton.
  22. Walter Slezak, The Pirate, 1947.   MGM snapped up SN Behrman’s play for… let’s see now, more stars than in the heavens above…    So how about them Minivers: Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon? Garson or Myrna Loy plus Cary Grant plus Charles Laughton…  Or, the Notorious Grant and Ingrid Bergman couple… or William Powell and Hedy Lamarr?  Hey, we’re MGM!  Why not a musical? With Judy Garland and… er… John Hodiak? They got on real swell in The Harvey Girls. He can’t really sing ‘n’ dance? No prob - Judy and Gene Kelly! And so it came to pass. Uneasily... The Minnellis (Judy and director Vincente) were at each other’s creative throats. A shrink was added to the budget to make sure Judy could get through it all.  LB Mayer ordered the Judy-Kelly Voodoo number burnt: it was too torrid. (Judy-Kelly were torrid?). In fact, LB hated it all, calling it high-brow and extremely pretentious. But that’’s Kelly - andMinnelli - in a nutshell.
  23. John Mills, The History of Mr Polly, 1948.      An earlier Hollywood version with Charlie was cancelled following the outbreak of WWII. Laughton and Mills co-starred in David Lean's Hobson’s Choice, 1954.
  24. Basil Rathbone, The Adventures of Ichapod and Mr Toad, 1948.       Two years in the Willows section of the Disney cartoon.   Finally it was Rathbone, with Bing Crosby relating The Story of Ichabod Crane tale.
  25. José Ferrer, Cyrano de Bergerac, 1950.     Surprisingly, after three Laughtonfilms were simultaneously nominated for Best Picture in 1935, producer Alexander Korda cancelled their Cyrano (Vivien Leigh was set as Roxanne)following rows about the size of the nose, shooting in colour and in both English and French. Charlie tried to interest Hollywood in his vision. But Ferrer was the new hottest thing on Broadway and this role shook him out of his Muniesque torpor, although falling short of the sheer grandeur and gusto of Depardieu's definitive portrayal in 1990.
  26. Spencer Tracy, Father of the Bride, 1950.After Jack Benny’s “terrible” test, Laughton, Fredric March, Walter Pidgeon entered the frame as Tracy went through his usual ponderous routine of swift refusal, making suggestions, hating the first draft and more final alterations.The book’s author, New York banker Edward Streeter, said he’d heard reports “ranging from Harpo Marx to Paul Robeson...Tracy is the one I wanted. Laughton is my idea of nobody and as for Benny, I’d nominate Abbott and Costello. Better, I’d nominate myself.”
  27. Peter Ustinov, Quo Vadis, 1950.   Peter Ustinov, Quo Vadis, 1950.   Took Hollywood  26 years to film Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1895 epic novel about ancient Rome. MGM won the rights in 1925, with Wallace Beery in mind for Nero in 1935, then Broadway star Alfred Lunt  or Orson Welles  in ’42 and  Laughton  in  ’43.  Well, he had been Nero in Paramount's 1932 Sign of the Cross…  He agreed a reprise if Robert Z. Leonard was directing. He was not.   Ustinov was Oscar-nominated in 1951.
  28. Robert Newton, Blackbeard, The Pirate, 1951.   .   Laughton and Boris Karloff were in the mix for the titular Edward Teach. Newton stole the entire enterprise with a somehow endearing way over the top, rollling-eyed performance that became the matrix for all pirates. This is the first, the only time that Laughton and Mitchum were even whispered about for the same role. Two uyears later, Laughton asked Mitchum to be thde preacher fanatic in Night of the Hunter. “He’s an unmitigated shit!” saif Laughton. “Present!” said Mitchum.
  29. Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen, 1951.  “A story of two old people going up and down an African river,” sneered Alexander Korda. “Who’s going to be interested in that?”  After Columbia passed on the  project for Laughton and his wife, Elsa Lanchester, Warner Bros moved in, buying the rights to the CS Forrester novel for Bette Davis. Then,  SP Spiegel (later reverting to Sam Spiegel) and his Horizon Pictures partner, John Huston, snapped it up. 

  30. Alec Guinness,  The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957.  
     Losing Laurence Olivier, director David  Lean thought of his Hobson's Choice star. They  wanted to  work  together again.  "He found plenty of excuses," said Laughton’s widow Elsa Lanchester,  "the heat of the Ceylon location, the ants and being cramped in a cage - Charles was not in the mood for degradation in life or even in drama.Lean had the better reason: Laughton was not lean enough. "You can't have a fat man among all these half-starved people."  Laughton then actually increased his weight. “He looks like… Moby Dick,” producer Sam Spiegel reported. “I frankly feel that Laughgton is unable to go through with a diet.”  (Nor, apparently, could Sam!).  Ironically, Lean was anti-Guinness because he didn’t have “the size” required…  Besides, he  would have taken  forever  to  unravel  the major nagging question about Colonel Nicholson - insane or traitor? When Guinness collected the Oscar on March 26, 1958, the losers included  Charlie for  Witness For The Prosecution.

  31. Kenneth More, The Admirable Crichton, 1957.      Bing Crosby was the butler in We're Not Dressing, 1934.  Laughton abandoned a re-make during the 1937-9days of his Mayflower combine, formed with ex-UFA producer Erich Pommer. Elsa Lanchester had been set as Tweeny, the maid.
  32. Raymond Massey, The Naked and the Dead, 1958.      Concert booking agent Paul Gregory turned producer by persuading Laughton to return to the stage in one-man show readings (Don Juan in Hell, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, both superbly edited by Laughton) and the star's screen directing debut,Night of the Hunter. YetLaughtonfought against acting in or directing Norman Mailer's 721 page novel."Nothing to do with his hatred of war, itself," said ElsaLanchester.As withRiver Kwai, "he just didn't understand or want to understand the male and his battling instincts."He did, however, write an "absolutely brilliant" scriptthat interested both Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift.
  33. Thomas Mitchell, Pocketful Of Miracles, 1960. Laughton, Burl Ives, Fredric March, Edward G Robinson… For what proved his last (and  unhappiest) gig,  director Frank Capra went through many possibilities for the perfect Judge Henry Blake.  And when he got him, Jackie Oakie fell ill and his scenes were re-shot with Mitchell. 
  34. Arnold Foa, The Loves of Salambro, France-Italy, 1963.      The plan was Gina Lollobrigida, Harry Belafonteplus three ofthe Spartacus XI: Olivier, Laughton, Ustinov. Italy could not afford them.
  35. Lou Jacobi, Irma La Douce, 1962.   Director Billy Wilder wanted Laughton, six years after their triumphant Witness For The Prosecution. “The perfect Moustache. He was enthusiastic, had a million ideas. But he was very, very sick and he died before we started shooting. Poor soul.” It was cancer. Both men pretended it wasn’t. Laughton grew a huge, white moustache and Wilder visited his bedside several times a week over six months, with new pages of his and IAL Diamond’s script.    Moustache went to Jacobi, who had previously been unable to get free from a Broadway contract in order to play Dr Dreyfuss (written for him by Wilder and Diamond) in The Apartment, 1959.
  36. Derek Jacobi, I,Claudius, TV, 1976.     Alexander Korda's production wasquickly halted in 1939 by MerleOberon's car crash (as good excuse as any other to halt the troubled project), plus directorJosef von Sternberg's treatment of an often weeping Laughton as heagonisingly searched for his hook, finally found - too late - in Edward VIII's abdication speech.The BBC version was a TV masterpiece. Actor Simon Callow said “Laughton rummaged among the capacious folds of his personality for his roles, while Olivier built new men on top of his.”
  37. Topol, Galileo,1975.        All set for Joseph Losey’s film of their 1947 Broadway hit. "The pressure of the Roman Catholic Church barred any possibility of a film in Hollywood," said Losey. He held the English-language rights for some years (a gift from Bertold Brecht) but could never mount a movie.


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